Poetry Aflame and Unafraid

Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale

Yesterday, at Biden’s inauguration, we saw a moment that marked a turning point in the history of poetry in English. We saw also how three women marked and lived the contradictions of a turning point in the history of the United States.

Joe Biden’s speech was never going to be the centrepiece of the event. He does not have the skills as an orator. More important, the politics of compromise he brings to this moment could not do justice to the passions of the movement that put him there. So the weight of the moment fell on the shoulders of the artists, two singers and a poet, three women, one white, one Latina, one black, Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez and Amanda Gorman.

 First was Lady Gaga. Her task, necessary to the ritual, was to sing the national anthem, The Star Spangled Banner. This is a test at which every major singer who tries, fails, usually miserably. The music, with its 17 semitones, is fiendishly difficult. Few Americans know all the words, and very few can sing it. But Lady Gaga nailed it.

She did this because the intention she brought to the moment illuminated the poem at its heart. The custom has been to let the music drown the words. Lady Gaga let the words soar over the music. She sang it as a song about the white riot that two weeks before had ravaged the same hill she was standing on as she sang.

The words of the poem are electric. We’ll come back to them in a minute. But first it’s important to say a bit more about the context of Lady Gaga’s performance.

You would be right in saying that the white riot was chaotic, half-assed and cruel, but a caricature of a coup. You would be right in that. But that would be to ignore two frightening things we also saw happening.

First, there is a real debate about whether Trump is a fascist. That the cops in the United States are embracing fascism is not a matter of debate. That is terrifying.

In many ways the police had enabled the riot. In the wake of Black Lives Matter, a mass uprising, black and white people standing against cop racism, the police have now swung further toward sympathy with the murderous right. This was evident in the way the cops allowed the rioters into the capitol.

But it was also evident in the planning, and the way the commanders of the various police and security forces left Capitol Hill undefended in the face of clear and present danger.

There was clear collusion in not defending the capital. We can be sure of this because we saw the massed ranks of terrifying soldiers that had confronted Black Lives Matter demonstrators. Yet they were not mustered this time. It was evident too in the failure of the Pentagon to respond in time to desperate pleas for help.

The other, larger, fear is that 74 million people voted for Trump. He had broken with austerity and stimulated the economy with deficit financing. That brought unemployment down to levels not seen for 50 years, and unemployment among black men down to levels never seen before.

Without his terrible handling of the Coronavirus, which alienated some of his supporters, Trump would probably have won the election. And without the scale of the Black Lives Matter protests which powered the energy that brought out Biden’s voters, Trump might also have won. That too was frightening.

This was the background to Lady Gaga singing the words of Frances Scott Key. Key wrote the poem three weeks after the only other time the Capitol was invaded, in 1814. It happened as part of the War of 1812.

That war was in many ways a sordid episode. The US went to war against Britain, ostensibly out of a working class grievance against the forcible impressment of American sailors into the British navy. The larger purpose, though, was an attempt by the United States to seize Canada and destroy the military power of the native nations who stood in the way of the movement of white settlers into their lands further west.

The US forces defeated Tecumseh, probably the greatest native general of the century. But the British controlled the sea and the coasts through superior naval might. In August, 1814, the British came ashore and burned many buildings in Washington, DC, including the White House and the Capitol. A war for an American empire suddenly became also a war against the real prospect of a British dictatorship.

Three weeks later, Frances Scott Key boarded a British warship off Baltimore. Key was an emissary of the US government, sent to negotiate a prisoner exchange. But he overheard British officers discussing their plans for an attack on Baltimore, so they detained him on board until the battle was over.

That night Key watched from the deck of the British warship as the battle began with the ships bombarding the main fort in Baltimore. That bombardment lasted all night.

Yet the garrison held the fort. Because they did so, the momentum of the war began to shift. It was possible to negotiate a peace in which the United States won nothing, but did not lose everything.

Key wrote his poem the day after the bombardment, in relief. He wrote of the flag that flew from the fort:

O say can you see by the dawn’s early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight.
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.’

And there is an urgency in the question at the end of the first verse: ‘Oh say, does that star spangled banner yet wave, Over the land of the free and the home of the brave?’

For decades that poem, set to music, has been sung as the anthem of bombastic military and imperial power. The way it is usually sung, it is all too easy to think that is a celebration of the way the US army fights now, with rockets and bombs.

Lady Gaga sang about British rockets and bombs, attacking a fort without the resources to have any such weapons or to easily defend themselves. She sang the words as an anthem of relief from the real prospect of dictatorship, and the words came alive.

We both grew up on children in the United States in the 1950s. In those years the history books still taught the history of the American Revolution as a guerrilla war. We learned of our brave volunteers, wearing everyday clothes, hiding behind the trees and shooting at the British redcoats foolish enough to march in the open wearing uniforms. Then the Americans fled and lived to fight another day.

In the years since, that vision of revolution has been cast out of the mainstream. It has been replaced by the worship of the Founding Fathers, a band of elite patriarchs, not a mass movement of revolutionary small farmers.

But the experience of the defenders of Fort McHenry in Baltimore was closer to the fear of the people of Baghdad cowering under the night of Shock and Awe; closer to the Viet Cong guerrillas hiding from the napalm in the tunnels of Cu Chi; and closer to the people in an Afghan village being blown to bits by drones.

Lady Gaga may not have made all these links consciously. But equally, she may have. She is a person of formidable intelligence. But Lady Gaga did not have to make the links. She only had to sing the words as an anthem of the deliverance from the threat of dictatorship. And suddenly the words lived again.

Here is a video of Lady Gaga singing the words.

The other two artists were the singer Jennifer Lopez and the poet Amanda Gorman. To understand what they were trying to do, we need to begin to unpick a contradiction they, and all Biden’s supporters, face.

Biden is very explicit. He sees his project as healing the country, bridging the divide, unifying the people. This fits with his politics. He is a natural conservative, a representative of the corporations, a loyal son of empire. Biden represents the mainstream establishment.

Creating unity to heal the threat of civil war also allows him to resist the pressure from his base to bring great changes to the lives of the poor, the unemployed, workers, immigrants, the imprisoned, the sick and those in danger from the cops – and to stop climate change.

That pressure from below is real, and Biden is bending to it. But he does not want to go too far. Unity means unity with the Republicans in the House and Senate, and that will hamstring Biden in ways he welcomes.

The call for unity and healing also fits his personality, for he is transparently an empathic person. His vigil on the Mall the night before the inauguration for the 400,000 dead from the Coronavirus was wise, and showed his feelings clearly.

Nor should we belittle the desire for healing. Civil war is a terrible experience to live through, and these last four years Americans have begun to feel the visceral possibility of such a conflict.

But there are other aspects of the contradiction. First, Biden’s victory was a victory over and against Trump and the political forces that supported him. It is difficult to preach unity at the same time as you are saying you have defeated those who preach disunity. And for the people who voted for Biden, and even more for those who got the vote out for him, Biden’s victory was a victory against racism, against sexual violence, against murderous cops and against the threat of fascism.

Another side of the contradiction is this. If Biden resists the pressure to go too far, he will leave the majority of Americans in the kind of misery that propelled Trump into the White House.

Trump won back in 2016 for two reasons. One was that enough white working class voters had had such hard lives in the Obama years that they wanted an alternative. The other, and larger, reason was that enough black and Latino voters for Obama had lives as hard, or harder, and they stayed home and did not vote for Hilary in 2016.

In four years’ time, if ordinary American lives are worse than they are now, that will happen again. This time the leader of a resurgent right is likely be someone far more grounded, far more emotionally strong and savvy than Trump. Someone like Josh Hawley.

The understanding of this contradiction seems very widespread. That contradiction is at the centre of the meaning of the inauguration as a public ritual. Biden could not address it. Lopez and Gorman, in different ways, did.

Jennifer Lopez began with the informal national anthem of the left, This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land. It was written by a working class communist from Oklahoma, Woody Guthrie. The central message is that ‘This Land Belongs to You and Me,’ and not to the rich.

It is almost always sung in the Pete Seeger way, as a rollicking crowd singalong. Lopez approached it differently. She can belt with the best of them. But this time she approached the words quietly, tentatively, as if she was testing them to see if they could be true.

Lopez’s inflection did not emphasize the communism, the collective. Her concern was more as if asking, ‘Could I, could people like me, belong?

And as she gently raised her voice, you could hear her begin to feel that the answer could be, ‘Yes.’

Then she segued into America the Beautiful, a song which clearly did not work for her. Then a moment’s pause, and to everyone’s surprise, she was suddenly shouting, truly belting out words, not music.

And in Spanish.

For those who do not live in the United States, it cannot be emphasized enough how strange and important it was for someone to shout in Spanish in the middle of the inauguration ceremony, this national ritual. It is unmarked, but of central importance, that the whole ritual has always been in English.

The repression of the Spanish language is a central cultural aspect of racism against Latino, Mexican, Central American and Puerto Rican people in the United States. In contrast to every other group of immigrants, the stubborn insistence of the second and third generations of Latinas and Latinos to speak Spanish to each other is a daily act of resistance.

And Lopez did not just say those words. She shouted them far louder than she had been singing. And in doing this, Lopez the singer had left music behind.

The words she was shouting were ‘¡Una nación, bajo Dios, indivisible, con libertad y justicia para todos!’

These words come from the Pledge of Allegiance American children recite in school each morning – in English, ‘One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.’

Lopez is protecting herself by using such sacred words. She needed the protection, for she was far out there.

Usually children mumble the Pledge of Allegiance in school, and often misunderstand ‘One nation indivisible’ as ‘One nation invisible’.

But as Lopez shouts, she suddenly reveals words that resonate in the struggle that consumed the country last year. ‘Liberty’ means Freedom. ‘Justice’ means Black Lives Matter. ‘For All’ means that yes, ‘This land is my land, this land is your land, this land was meant for you and me’.

Central to the fight against Trump has been the fight for the Mexicans he vilified as rapists, the fight against the Wall, the fight for the dreamer children of immigrants trapped without citizenship, the fight for the children torn from their families at the border. As her voices rang out in Spanish, Lopez brought all that meaning into the heart of the ceremony.

Yes, she is saying, unity. But unity because you have to accept me and mine.

Here is a video of Lopez doing that.


Which bring us to the complex politics of Amanda Gorman’s poem. But first let’s take a moment to talk about this moment in poetry in English.

Gorman stepped forward into the spot that marks the acme of mainstream poetic achievement, wearing the sort of hat generations of African-American have worn as their Church best. She delivered a poem that in its formal structure owes everything to rap.

For twenty years and more there has been a debate in the halls of mainstream poetry over the contrasting merits of ‘spoken word poetry’ and poetry on the page. The very fact of the debate is astonishing. All credit to poets like Lucy English, a passionate campaigner for spoken word poetry in Britain. But poetry has been a spoken medium since at least Homer and Rig Veda.

Gorman’s appearance is the moment when the victory of spoken word became obvious. But so did the victory of rap.

For more than three decades rap has been the most creative, and far and away the most popular form of poetry in many countries. It is, in origin, a black and working class form of poetry from the United States.

The form has spread far beyond the US, and beyond black people, because it speaks to working class experience everywhere. And because poetry will find a way.

[See, for example, the wonderful book by Tanya L. Saunders, Cuban Underground Hip Hop: Black Thoughts, Black Revolution, Black Modernity, Austin, 2015.]

The most obvious formal elements Gorman takes from rap are the alliteration and assonance, the forms of internal rhyme. There is the playful forcing of rhymes at the ends of lines.

There is also a harking back, typical of rap, to something that was basic to the structure of Anglo-Saxon poetry a thousand years ago. There too you find internal rhyme. And connected to that was a constant contrast between the first half of the line and the second – four bars divided into two against two.

Gorman is using longer lines much of the time, availing herself of a tradition that goes back to Whitman, Hughes and Ginsberg. But again and again she uses internal contrasts and concordance to grasp the contradiction she must embrace.

She stands there, as a young black woman in the era of Black Lives Matter, taking rap into a secular holy place. She has chosen a side. She has also been given, and embraced, the mission of speaking a poem that helps Biden to heal the divide.

Let’s look, briefly, at what she does early on. Take the third line, ‘We’ve braved the belly of the beast.’ Formally, there are the three words starting with B. There is the ee- sound in the first word and the last, and the two ‘the’s.

But there is also that phrase ‘the Belly of the Beast’. For someone who majored in sociology at Harvard, as Gorman did, that phrase means something very specific. It’s a phrase used by the great Cuban revolutionary Jose Marti when he lived in exile in the United States in the 1880s. It expresses his deep ambivalence, his anger, at living in the lower orders in the centre of imperialism and racism in the Americas. It’s a phrase that has been used many times in the last fifty years by left activists to evoke both the difficulty and importance of struggle inside the US.

The phrase also names the Beast for what it is. At Joe Biden’s inauguration, she delivered those lines with two flags flying on one flagpole behind her, outside the Capital building. The upper flag was the Stars and Stripes. The lower flag bore the letters MIA/POW, for ‘Missing in Action’ and ‘Prisoners of War’. This black flag has long been the emblem for the right wing conspiracy theory that the governments of the US and Vietnam are hiding the existence of American prisoners of war still held in Vietnam. And Gorman, in front of both flags, is saying, ‘Belly of the Beast’.

The next two lines of Gorman’s poem are:

‘We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace,
And the norms and notions of what ‘just’ is isn’t always justice.’

Again, formally, notice the forced rhyme between ‘beast’ and ‘peace’; the ‘We’ve’ that begins two lines in a row; the ‘norms’ and ‘notions’; the ‘just is’ and ‘justice’; the ‘is’ and ‘isn’t’.

Notice also the politics. ‘Quiet is not peace’ is a call to protest police violence. It also says, let us not unite by being quiet and moderate and agreeing. And both lines evoke the chant, ‘No Justice, No Peace’.

We will leave the formal analysis of lines here. But two things are clear. One is that this is spoken poetry. Sound reigns supreme. Listen to Gorman speak it, and then read it on the page. You can see which is more powerful.

The other is the radical politics. If you listen to the whole poem, you can hear Gorman return again and again to the motifs of unity, of reaching out, of building bridges, of healing. All the way through she is contrasting both sides of the contradiction of the moment.

Towards the end she says explicitly, ‘We will not be turned around or interrupted by intimidation because we know our inaction and inertia will be the inheritance of the next generation. Our blunders become their burdens.’

Gorman is telling us that if Biden, and we, do not go far enough, the horror will come.

Very close to the end, she says, ‘When day comes, we step out of the shade, aflame and unafraid.’

It is a vision, because we are afraid now, and we are in the night, not in the dawn. But also, do Biden and Harris want a people who are ‘aflame’?

The late Chris Harman once said that Bob Dylan was the great poet of the 1960s not because he was the most radical, but because he best expressed the contradictions felt by the majority of people in motion. That too is the strength of what Gorman does. She embraces and embodies the contradiction.

But Gorman knows what she’s doing. She tells us we are wading through a swamp, climbing a hill, carrying a burden of grief and pain. She tells us we may not make it. But she tells us also that there is another world, beyond the unity of cowardice and compromise, if we can reach the top of the hill.

Here is a video of Gorman reading The Hill We Climb.

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